Communication confusion

If someone were to ask me to briefly summarise Asperger’s Syndrome – not that they often do – I would put it like this:

– Difficulty reading faces and body language
– Difficulty interpreting things people say, especially instructions
– Poor physical skills
– Above average IQ
– Detailed long term memory
– Good at learning – and correctly using – spoken language

But in a specific situation where I have misunderstood something and fallen short of expectations, I can’t explain what I’m confused about, or what went wrong. Other people will ask me why I struggled with something that they probably see as blindingly obvious, and so often I’m left feeling stupid because I just can’t explain.

Often it’s the same with smaller, more mundane things. Why do you not join in with the group conversation? Why are you so easily startled? Why do you still need help finding your way there? In response, it would be so easy for me to reply: How do you find so many things to say to all those people? Why aren’t you startled when someone behind you pats you on the shoulder? How can you memorise a route you’ve only taken once while following other people? But these aren’t answers, because – apart from “I’m autistic” – I don’t have any.

In these situations, people asking about Asperger’s is fair enough. The hard part is answering those questions. How do you explain the way you are? It’s like trying to explain what your own accent sounds like! And when people expect you to communicate why you’ve misunderstood someone, the irony is that you have a communication disorder, and can’t explain any better than they can. Because part of being autistic is struggling to see how you come across compared with others.

One of the things I find hardest is unspoken expectations. Despite the autism stereotype, empathy has never been a struggle, and I have even learned to use it to pinpoint people’s emotional needs. But when I’m in a situation where there’s pressure to perform well – practically or socially – and pick up things that haven’t been explained, I’m completely lost without clear guidance on how to manage the situation.

And that’s not to say that AS renders you incapable of communication. We just process things differently, and who’s to say “differently” means “worse” anyway? We take in information in a concrete, logical manner, accompanied with a lot of careful thought, and in a world where most people instinctively know what’s expected when given ambiguous information, we are in a minority. So while we power through that world, and keep honing our non-native neurotypical* language skills, please bear with us!

 

 

*Non-autistic

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Ni hao! Where are you from?

The other week, my mother showed me a video on Facebook: What (Not) To Say To An Asian Person. It featured a couple of East Asian women explaining how to avoid making a race-themed social faux pas. Naturally, the comments section was full of words like “special snowflake” and “stop-whining-about-issues-we-have-never-experienced-but-are-judging-you-for-anyway*, ” and “how DO you talk to them?”

Which, to be fair, is an interesting question. The short answer is: if you talk like one respectable human being to another without making assumptions about the other person, then you’re probably getting it right. But I thought I’d break it down further.

For a start, upon seeing someone who may be in a racial minority, I like to assume that they speak English and don’t want to be singled out. Apparently, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to say a random greeting to them in a language that all people who look like them must speak – especially if you have no other reason to talk to them. Or to shout it through the window of your moving car. Ni hao! Konichiwa! Or be downright racist and shout “Great Wall of China!” at them to impress your mates. Right?

Wrong. It’s not simply saying hello. Do you have the same urge to shout a greeting to a completely white stranger? I never know why people do it, but if they want to be funny, clever, or cool, then they’ve got work to do.

And sometimes it is meant to be friendly. But having heard “ni hao” used as a slur – and even combined with catcalling – I just associate it with being made fun of. Besides, how do you know what language someone speaks? A white person, for example, could come from any continent in the world! Don’t get me wrong, if you’re fluent in their language, and they struggle with yours, then great. Otherwise, a simple “hello” or “hi” will suffice.

Interestingly, when my mum lived in Taiwan, she had a lot of passing strangers say “hello” or “good day”. If I ever went back to Taiwan and experienced this, I would be too amused by the irony of being in a reverse situation to usual to be offended.

As for asking where I’m from? Loughborough, England, UK. No, where am I really from? Born in Taiwan with a Taiwanese father, but raised British since age 4. What about my mum? British. Do I talk to, or visit my father? No. My ethnicity is no secret, but honestly, sometimes it’s like being questioned by the Spanish Inquisition! I like to think I just look like a dark haired British person, but the number of times I’ve heard these questions has disproven this. I don’t mind talking about the subject – it’ll come up naturally if you hang around with me long enough anyway – but I can’t help feeling a little self conscious when questioned on the first meeting.

I realise I’m being a bit sensitive. I think having a learning difference has made me fed up of being scrutinised for my differences, and I am working on that.

So there you go. Discussions like this so often lead to people thinking minority groups expect special treatment. If I need special treatment, I’ll swallow my pride and let you know, but apart from that, it’s the opposite. I just want people to get to know me for me, and learn naturally how to treat me based on that.

 

 

*Well maybe not those exact words…